There are a large number of different varieties of flour available in stores today. At most groceries, you can find anything and everything, ranging from coconut flour to tapioca flour, to corn flour, to almond flour, and more.
In the case of wheat flour, there are different varieties within the wheat family as well. However, keep in mind that with wheat-based flour, all types contain different percentages of gluten and protein.
These percentages are what make one type of flour ideal for one recipe, and another type ideal for another recipe. The most commonly sold wheat flour in grocery stores is refined white flour.
This refined white flour is basically wheat flour that has been leached of much of its nutritional value and sometimes bleached. Unfortunately, this makes white flour only a nominal source of fiber and other nutritional goodies, although it’s still great for making baked goods and to use while cooking.
White flour is sold as both self-rising flour and all purpose flour, and it’s common to get the two a little confused. Though all flour is a “wheat” product, in the case of white flour, during the refinement process the bran and the germ are removed, leaving only the endosperm of the wheat kernel behind.
Removing the bran and the germ greatly reduces the fiber content of the flour. Healthy fats, phytochemical, and antioxidants are also removed.
The upside, though, is that by removing the germ, you can greatly increase the shelf life of the flour. By grinding the endosperm into a fine powder, you get a flour that can be turned into all- purpose flour or rising flour with the addition of a leavening agent. It can then be used for a wide variety of cooking and baking purposes.
What Is All-Purpose Flour?
All purpose flour is probably the most versatile wheat flour you can find on the shelves and can be used for general use. When milling all purpose flour, both soft wheat and hard wheat (containing more gluten) are milled or ground together. The end result contains about 10-12 percent protein, which is a moderate range making all purpose flour useful for various recipes ranging from pizza, bread, cookies, biscuits, muffins, and more. If a recipe simply says “use flour,” you can be reasonably sure it’s asking for all purpose flour. It’s used in just about everything, from fluffy biscuits to chewy bread and flaky pie crusts. All purpose flour can also be used as a coating for meats and veggies, and as a thickening agent in sauces, gravies, and soups.
Because a lot of the nutrition is stripped from the flour in the production process, it is “enriched,” or has nutrients added back into it. Usually, these are nutrients like thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, and iron. Some all purpose flours are also bleached (although Bob’s Red Mill’s is not), which is the process that also whitens the flour.
Though all wheat has gluten, all purpose flour doesn’t have as much gluten as bread flour. Gluten levels can also vary by brand, which is why someone who does a lot of baking may find a certain brand they like to use and stick with that one.
Since gluten is the ingredient that gives dough elasticity, allowing it to stretch and bubble up with gas, flour that doesn’t contain a higher level of gluten (like all purpose flour) is not ideal for bread-making or other recipes where the dough must rise.
What Is Self-Rising Flour?
If you want to make muffins, pancakes, or tender biscuits, rising flour is your jam. Like all-purpose flour, self-rising flour is made from wheat, although it’s a wheat that is low in protein. Self-rising flour is a staple in the South, as the low-protein wheat it is made from originates there.
Also like all-purpose flour, self-rising flour is enriched with added nutrition. It also contains salt and baking powder that has been distributed evenly throughout the flour and acts as a leavening agent.
This raising agent helps dough to rise without having to add yeast. You should only use self-rising flour as a substitute for other types of flour very carefully, due to the leavening effect. If you aren’t careful, you may not end up with the desired result. The same goes for using all purpose flour if your recipe calls for self-rising. Bottom line: if you use the wrong one or haven’t modified your recipe to account for self-rising flour, your baked goods may not come out as expected.
You can modify and use all purpose flour as self-rising flour if you add baking powder and salt to give it a leavening effect. A general measurement rule is for every cup of all purpose flour, add a teaspoon of baking powder and 1/4 teaspoon of salt to the mix.
Do not add baking powder to flour that is already labeled as self-rising., Also, keep in mind that self-rising flour won’t last as long on the shelf as all purpose flour. After about six months or so, its rising action begins to peter out.
What Is Self-Rising Flour Used For?
Some self-rising flour recipes include simple, three-ingredient biscuits or pancakes, especially if you like them thick and fluffy. You can also use self-rising flour to make muffins, certain types of bread, pizza dough, and even delicious, Southern “Fat Bread.”
What Is All Purpose Flour Used For?
Some all purpose flour recipes include everything from casseroles and soups to baked treats and fried foods. You can even use all purpose flour for things like biscuits and certain breads when you add a leavening agent like baking soda and salt.
While all purpose flour can’t be used in every recipe, it is a kitchen staple that can be used in most recipes, which is what has earned it the moniker of “all purpose.”
Other Types of Flours
There are a variety of baking flours on the market, although rising flour and all- purpose flour are considered the most common and most widely available. Here is a short list of other types of wheat flours you can find as well, depending on the store:
Bread flour is considered the strongest out of all types of flour and contains about 12-14 percent protein, which is what helps give flour structural support when making dough. This type of structural support is very important with yeast-based breads, in order to contain the gases that are produced in the fermenting process. Extra protein not only makes for chewier bread with a browner crust, it also gives bread more volume.
Whole Wheat Flour
Whole wheat flour is similar to white flour in processing, except the germ and bran are added back into the flour in varying amounts. The bran and germ both hinder the gluten formation in whole wheat flour, despite its high protein count.
This results in heavier, denser baked goods. Also keep in mind that because the germ and bran are both present, whole wheat flour has a shorter shelf life than white flour, approximately three months.
Pastry flour is made from wheat with protein levels at about 8-9 percent. This makes the wheat softer and results in baked goods that are more tender and flaky. This makes pastry flour the go-to choice when it comes to making things like tarts, pie crust, and certain types of cookies.
Cake flour has the lowest levels of protein out of all the flours, containing just 7-9 percent. The lack of protein means there is very little ability for gluten formation, which makes it a perfect choice for baked goods that need to be soft and tender, like cakes, scones, muffins, and even biscuits.
Gluten Free Flour
Finally, there is gluten free flour. Because so many people are sensitive to gluten today, there are a wide selection of gluten free flours and gluten free products to choose from. All are made from different types of nuts, grains, and starches, instead of wheat. Rice flour is a popular choice, often blended with potato and tapioca starch.
Sometimes xanthan gum is added to mimic the chewiness that is usually created by the presence of gluten. While it’s not an exact science, there are plenty of recipes that you can modify with gluten free flour in lieu of wheat flour and achieve delicious results, or make it easy by trying our gluten free 1-1 baking flour.
As you can see, flour can be tricky business! But it doesn’t have to be. When it comes to self-rising flour vs all purpose flour, there is no clear winner. Both types of flours can be used successfully for many different recipes and baked goods, tt just may require a bit of tweaking and some trial and error to achieve the textures and flavors you are looking for.
Because white flour is so readily available and cost-effective, it just doesn’t make sense not to experiment with both varieties and see what works best. Your results might surprise you, in a good way!